Citing a “significant” jump in shootings by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies this year, the department’s top civilian watchdog called Monday for tightening guidelines to limit shooting, particularly at moving vehicles.
“These shootings are lawful but awful,” said Michael Gennaco, head of the county’s Office of Independent Review.
Deputies were involved in 46 shootings during the first eight months of 2004, the same number for all of last year and up from 38 in 2002, according to Gennaco’s annual review of sheriff’s operations.
Gennaco said the upturn in shots fired at people should trigger a review of when deputies are justified in firing weapons. So far this year, 12 shootings have been found to be so tactically deficient that the deputies have been disciplined or suspended from duty, Gennaco said.
Deputies were disciplined for failing to communicate with a partner, leaving a partner during a foot pursuit, failing to properly supervise burglary surveillance, and failing to safeguard an arrestee.
“The deputies in these cases put themselves in a position due to mistakes where they had no choice but to shoot,” Gennaco said.
Many of the shootings are based on the officer’s belief that a vehicle presents a deadly threat, he said. But in many cases, the deputies placed themselves in that position, he said.
Sheriff Lee Baca’s current policy allows the department’s 8,500 deputies to use weapons when a life is threatened. Gennaco said he would like to see that policy narrowed in relation to moving vehicles, in order to encourage officers to get out of the way rather than shoot.
The report cited the case of an undercover deputy doing surveillance on serial criminals he interrupted during a robbery in progress. A review concluded that he fired at the getaway van as it moved away from him.
The review found the deputy’s tactical decisions, which placed him in an exposed and vulnerable position, were deficient enough to constitute a violation of sheriff’s policy. The deputy and his sergeant, who planned the surveillance, were both suspended.
This year’s shooting total is expected to be highest since 1997, when the department logged 55 shootings. In the report, Gennaco noted an escalation in the number of deputies arrested for drunk driving off duty. Deputies logged 16 DUI arrests in the first half of 2004, compared with 15 arrests in all of 2003. Gennaco said personnel regulations prevent identifying the deputies in question. As a prime example of bad judgment, Gennaco cited the case of a deputy who made a driver who was found to be intoxicated give up the wheel to his passenger. Less than a block away, an accident took the life of the passenger. The passenger who took the wheel was also intoxicated and did not have a valid driver’s license.
In response to five inmate slayings in the county jail system, Gennaco recommended that an hourly safety check requirement be applied in the Inmate Reception Center, where one person was murdered.
He also recommended better control of inmates granted special privileges in jail.
Gennaco is also seeking the installation of a wire mesh protective screen between two cell tiers in a wing where an inmate was killed.
The five slayings between October 2003 and April 2004 have lead to the disciplining of more than 25 sheriff’s employees.